Palo Alto's Baumé: modern French with macrobiotic influences
Baumé could be the soul of a new cuisine. Or it could be just another once-pretty face on a high-turnover restaurant corner of Palo Alto's California Avenue. Two people ventured early behind the orange door and gave me their opinions about Baumé. One got all dreamy-eyed recalling his 10-course feast, the other said everyone in her party left hungry.
I side with the besotted, but love it or hate it, you have to give Baumé major style points.
The Website describes Baumé as serving "French modern cuisine with a Zen touch."
Chef-owner Bruno Chemel, 41, studied macrobiotic cooking in Japan and worked at starry restaurants in France, New York, Southern California and San Francisco. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Mountain View's Chez TJ, with pastry chef Ryan Shelton and much of the staff of Baumé. They opened Jan. 28 and run a pretty tight little ship.
There is science behind the food, but don't feel compelled to dissect every dish. Eating at Baumé is delicious fun — a game in which you don't know what's going to happen.
You have to know this: Baumé is a benevolent dictatorship. The choices are five-, 10- or 15-course dinner, made with the 20 or so ingredients listed. If you are allergic or just don't want any ingredients, tell your server and the chef will leave them out. All we knew about a recent five-course meal, $78 per person, was that it would include young garlic, beef, saffron and 17 others.
Whom does Monsieur Chemel think he is? And where? It's Palo Alto, not New York, not Paris. Many of us would rather spend this kind of money at a steakhouse. And you know what, we still can.
The two dining areas are cozy behind blackout windows and heavy drapes. Diners aren't hovered over, but there is lots of front-room staff, serving at a steady pace. Details extend to filtered tap water, cold without ice, poured behind a napkin without splashing.
Decor is just beyond minimal. You look at each other or the food. And by the way, on a recent weeknight no one wore jeans.
Our meal began splendidly, with a "chocolate truffle of olives." Two balls of tapenade, cocoa-lookalikes in paper cups, were to be spread onto freshly toasted walnut bread.
All breads are baked in-house. We had yeasty French epi rolls, with amazingly thin bottom crusts, and steamy soft whole-wheat buns. The part of butter was played by a cold, creamy balsamic-olive oil spread. Next to it was an herbal and surprisingly more liquid marriage of tofu and parsley. Baumé is a feast of textures and temperatures at every turn.
Still, it's all about taste. Next up: scallop sashimi with passion-fruit caviar, a mouth-filling soup spoon each that heightened interest in whatever was to come.
The first course stumbled over itself: a jumble of luscious asparagus spears, just slightly warm, with tiny balls of hollandaise sauce, a curl of asparagus, pureed asparagus and pickled peri-peri peppers, sweet rather than hot, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Individual parts were good, but didn't work together.
Course two, the bacon "floating island," made up for all that. A cube of meringue, soft as a marshmallow, floated in warm artichoke soup with a scoop of olive oil ice cream. Very fine bacon covered the island.
The fish course cemented our faith. Ethereal striped bass rested on fennel-laced panna cotta, in a sea of bouillabaisse reduced to its essence. It was like enjoying a whole seafood stew in a few spoonfuls.
The main course was an impossibly tender filet mignon, the size of a tall brownie, topped with microgreens. One spear of baby leek rested on an itsy-bitsy ciopollini onion tart. Perigord truffle sauce and mustard sauce contrasted beautifully with the sweet tart.
Before dessert came another play on words, "sashmi of lichee fruit," which meant seedless lichee filet with chocolate in a spoon.
We sprang for the wine pairing, $50 for ample pours of 2007 Cheverny from the Loire, 2002 Chalone District Chardonnay from Michaud, 2008 Napa Valley Viogner, 2004 Margaux, and a five-year Madeira. Dessert included a strawberry ice cream soda, a chocolate tarragon torte (incredibly creamy with a crunchy bottom), more strawberry ice cream, and crumbled chocolate.
Before leaving, we got tiny eclairs with pieces of sweet bacon. It was like eating a maple bar without the indigestion.
Which explains Baumé in a nutshell. Eat. Enjoy. Leave, totally satisfied, carrying good memories, not fat.
Note that at lunch, three days a week, $48 buys three courses, $68 with wine.
201 S. California Ave., Palo Alto
Lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday
Dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday